Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Calicuchima Cut

I'd been growing out my hair for six years, the longest it had ever gone without a cut. I'd graduated from high school, then college without cutting it. I'd gotten married without cutting it.

But then Dave and I, newly married, traveled to South America for an extended tour. I'll never forget the thickness of the air in the tropics--the endless tracts of big-leafed banana trees, humid and dense. At our first stop--Ecuador--the climate in Guayaquil was unbelievably warm, a greenhouse cranked above 100 degrees.

We weren't on any particular schedule. We'd sold an inherited diamond ring for $4000 to make the journey, and were traveling till our money ran out. We'd heard the Galapagos Islands were worth a visit, so we booked passage on the Calicuchima--an Ecuadorian naval supply ship--to tour them. It was the absolute cheapest way to go.

For a reason--they had no set departure time. Maybe they'd leave tomorrow, the ticket seller said when we paid for our passage. Or maybe not. Maybe the day after. So, each morning, we'd pack our stuff and hike over to the dock. Finally, about a week later, they allowed us on board and it was time to depart, the Calicuchima plowing out through Guayaquil's littered shorewaters into the Pacific for a twelve-day tour.

Taking tourists on the Calicuchima apparently helped fund the supply run of white rice and soda pop to the Ecuadorian naval base in the Galapagos Islands. Besides a group of Ecuadorian Catholic high school girls, nuns in tow, our fellow passengers were gringos like ourselves--Germans, Belgians, Americans, Australians, Canadians. And much to my delight, one of them was a hair stylist.

"I just hate this long hair--I'm miserable!" I complained to Carli, who was Swiss. Carli and her husband Marc had left Switzerland to move hemispheres--Marc had a new job in Australia. They were taking the scenic route. "Will you cut it off? Please?"

It took some nagging, but eventually, Carli gave in to my pleas. Some time during our three-day journey back to the mainland, she took pity on me and led me to the rumbling, vibrating stern of the Calicuchima, the ship's engine sweating away at full power, a smell of diesel exhaust and overripe fruit in the air. As she cut my hair to a length where I might be mistaken for a boy, some of the ship's crew came to the railing to smoke cigarettes, to watch the crazy gringos. When we were done, they didn't smile and nod appreciatively. They acted somber, like they'd witnessed a funeral.

It was only after I'd cut it all off that I began to understand how much South American men revere long hair. Dave and I continued with our travels, to Peru, then Bolivia, and every time we were stopped for a passport check from then on, it was the same story. The guard would look up at me, then at the passport picture, the old, long-haired version of me, and there would be a pause.

"Linda!" The guard would say, gesturing to the picture. (Linda means lovely, charming.) Some of the other young guards would lean in, machine guns strapped casually across their backs, to stare at the picture, too. "Linda!" they'd say, pointing at the passport, looking up at me accusingly.

But I'd smile back at them, unfazed. With a soft breeze tickling my neck, I'd think with relief of the weight that had been lifted when my hair swirled into the Calicuchima's wake. Floating along on those satisfying swells of the Pacific, I'd said good-bye once and for all to my boy-magnet tresses. It was as good a time as any, I'd decided.

No comments: